The Memory Mobile - K.T. Pillai’s Mercedes Benz W108 280S Restoration
We were in the final days of Ramadhan when we received a message from Mr. K.T. Pillai, a man from Ipoh. He informed us of his two prized possessions – a red Toyota MR2 SW20 and this Mercedes W108 280s. K.T. was an excellent host. He showed me around town and even introduced me to more car enthusiasts in the vicinity. Thank you again, K.T., for your hospitality. Whenever we question ourselves why we take the trouble to build this website, we will always look back to moments like this. It’s for all of you who love cars.
K.T. himself has an interesting backstory. His late grandfather was from Sri Lanka, his mother is Chinese, and he is a multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-talented professional emcee with a passion for music. He also coaches new emcees and teaches public speaking.
The Mercedes? His father used to have one – A blue Mercedes W108 with a Selangor registration plate. But it wasn’t the only car his father had. His late father, Mr. VN Kathirgamer JP, a plantation owner, bought & sold more than 200 cars over the course of his life. I’m pretty sure he was a car enthusiast. There were MGs, Triumphs, Volvos, and of course, Mercedes Benzes in his ownership history.
This Mercedes W108 280s was a restoration project. Unfortunately, father’s W108 was long gone so K.T. had to find one to restore. This car was purchased in Klang and underwent a 10-month long restoration to get it looking as magnificent as it does today. The colour is a custom mixture only known by the spray shop owner. It’s a mixture of gold, silver, and many things I don’t know off, and it accentuates the details and slight curves of this post-Merdeka Mercedes Benz.
Why restore the W108 280s and not any other of the 200 cars his father used to own?
He has many fond memories of the car as he and his brothers used to go on trips and rides in this 2 tonne Mercedes Benz.
Back in the days, a W108 was a symbol of success. It was the car for estate owners and successful businessmen. It still looks magnificent today thanks to the great restoration work, but I guess I’d have to go back in time to really understand just how glorious this would have been in in its prime.
When K.T. purchased this car to be restored, he kept it a secret from his mother. She would have probably said he was out of his mind if she saw the initial condition of the W108. So, it was a well-kept secret for 10 long months. After a costly and laborious mission of going from workshop to workshop, finding parts, and keeping an eye on the restoration, he could finally show the Benz to his mother. Her reaction when she climbed inside? She said it was exactly like the car father used to have. Sometimes we buy a car for outright speed, sometimes it’s for the thrill of driving, sometimes it’s a status symbol, sometimes it’s for the comfort, and most of the times it’s a necessity. This time? It’s for the memories.
The Restoration Process
*Restoration photographs provided by Mr. K.T. Pillai
Restoration projects require a lot of time, money, and energy.
The first thing that was done was to have the car stripped with exception of the engine & doors. The body panels had to be fixed. This was a long stay at CS Spray Centre in First Garden, Ipoh. Once all that was taken care of, the W108 was sprayed in a custom metallic gold colour that was produced by trial and error by the guys at CS Spray Centre.
While the shell was being taken care of at CS Spray Centre, all the chrome parts (except the front & back bumpers) were sent to Lahat Chrome workshop to be restored.
The chrome parts are attached to the car using clips. This is necessary for the chrome at the front windscreen, the side garnish, and the rear garnish. They’re spaced out by about 6 inches and the car needed 25 clips in total. During his quest to search for these clips, one shop in Ipoh quoted him at RM40 per piece. That would have meant RM1,000 just for a complete set of clips. It was ridiculous so K.T. jumped on his motorbike to hunt for the clips in Old Town, Medan Kidd, and Labroy Road Spare Parts Centre. It was a fruitless quest. None of them had the clips he was looking for, but he didn’t give up. No spare parts seller was going to rip him off. He kept on searching until he finally found the clips for sale in Jalan Kuala Kangsar.
RM9 per piece.
The moral of the story?
Don’t let the illusion of scarcity fool you into getting ripped off. There’s always a better deal.
For the upholstery, the job was left to BKW Seats in Jalan Ipoh. The seats were cleaned and the door trims were redone. It was given new rubber inserts, new roof lining, and new carpets. The result is a beautiful interior that takes you back in time.
Everybody gets an armrest in the W108 280s
The white wall tyres you see are not the same as white wall tyres from the era this Mercedes was built. The white parts are inserts by Atlas. They cost about RM100 per piece and a good tyre man can help you get these installed on your car. This means you can enjoy the handling and safety of modern day tyres without compromising the classic look of white wall tyres.
Engine and Transmission
Powering this 2 tonne behemoth is a 2.0L inline-4 M115 engine from the smaller W115 paired to a manual 4-speed transmission. The original engine was a 2.8L M130 inline-6 but upon purchase of the W108, it already had the M115 inside. Worry not, K.T. is on the lookout for a healthy 2.8 M130 to replace the under-powered inline-4.
Fun fact: 'Zundfolge 1342' means firing order 1342. “Zundfolge” on the cover means firing order. 1342 is each cylinder ‘1’, ‘3’, ‘4’, and ‘2’.
I am a young Malaysian man, so what I write comes from that context and perspective. I remember angering an older European man because of something I said about the Alfa Romeo (link to article). The W108 still has its original owner’s manual in English. Those fonts have been around for ages now. And they didn’t have computer aided design back in the day. I imagine creative processes and documentation processes were a lot more laborious for those before my time.
Finding the fuel filler cap is a game of hide and seek. I would have not been able to guess where it was had K.T. not showed it to me. The benefit? You’re never on the wrong side of a petrol station pump. It also feels like you have a Bond movie car. Why don’t we see these anymore? Most probably due to modern safety standards.
Like the W126 I tried previously (link to article), the hood is held up by a mechanical hinge. It’s a fancy feature before pneumatic hinges were introduced. Over-engineered, but something we would appreciate. The car originally had no air conditioning. To initiate ventilation, flip the window panel open and air will gush in as you cruise.
Classic AAM badges adorn the front grille of the W108.
This W108 took 10 months to restore. And it was worth all the time, money, and energy. Especially when K.T. showed it to his mother.With a 4-speed manual transmission, you’re not going anywhere fast. But that’s not the point. This car is meant to take you back in time. And it does so successfully for K.T. and his family. Although the W108 lacks headrests, the ride is very comfortable. When I was in the front passenger seat, I could just allow myself to sink into the seat and enjoy the short yet memorable tour of Ipoh with my special guide and new friend, Mr. K.T. Pillai.